How would you feel about a shop that offered only a choice between, say, French and Spanish wine? It feels just as bizarre to farmer, Nick Miller, that the only choice of lamb available to him in his local Waitrose store is Welsh or British. Good point Nick. As his partner, Sarah Dickens, went on to explain during a thoroughly enjoyable and instructive evening of hogget tasting, we should be as ready to develop a vocabulary to describe the difference for lamb as we are now with wine.
It is not only the vocabulary that we are missing, but we have also lost some of the critical evaluation powers of taste, which at a fundamental level let us, and animals, select what is good for us to eat. When I am teaching people to cook I have to remind them to taste the food, and the ingredients they are adding, to see what the dish needs.
The hogget tasting I attended in May was an initiative of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, and hosted by The Table Café in Southwark, London. Hogget is lamb that has passed its first birthday, as is often the case when lambs are grown slowly and naturally on a 100% diet of pasture. I have written about hogget and mutton before here as well as the health benefits of a 100% pasture-fed diet, so this article will concentrate on the taste aspects for which this occasion was designed. The Campaign for Real Farming has always believed that when people can actually taste the difference between methods of production they will be prepared to pay the true costs that sustaining it.
Shaun Alpine-Crabtree, the chef-owner of The Table Café, was himself initially sceptical about whether we would be able to discern a difference between the hoggets, but the first thing he noticed was the differences in appearance – size, colour and fat for example. To ensure that the comparison was fair, all the joints (shoulders) were cooked in exactly the same way – for 6 hours at 145°C. This is quite a long time, even for a should joint, and not all hogget requires slow cooking, it is perfectly possible, for example, to barbeque hogget chops.
So what were the differences we might expect to taste? Each producer explained the breed – all traditional native breeds – Cotswold (famed for its wool), Herdwick (a very hardy breed native to the Lake District), Swaledale (another hardy breed suited to the North Yorkshire Moors) and Black Welsh Mountain (especially useful on less productive pasture as they can live off almost nothing). The breed is chosen to suit the land and pasture on which it will live, the biggest distinction being between lush lowland meadows and more difficult terrain with a greater mix of plants growing on it. We had been due to taste a hogget from Welsh salt-marshes but unfortunately the carrier had not shown up. This would have represented the biggest difference in grazing as the sea, whilst only flooding the marshes for a few days each year, does prevent rye grass growing there but instead you find coastal plants such as samphire and sea-lavender. However, it should be noted that the Herdwick we ate was not from its native Cumbrian fells but from a small flock that were taken to Kent during the Foot and Mouth crisis as protection against the breed being entirely wiped out in its native area. This flock is managed by Kent Wildlife Trust and assists in maintaining the chalk grassland by browsing back woody species such as bramble and hawthorn. The farmers jostled with one another to boast who had the most variety of plants on their pasture, but whilst there would have been differences in some to the species present, they had plenty in common in all being species rich.
Finally there were differences in the age and hanging time. The oldest was the Black Welsh Mountain, which at 2 years actually classifies as Mutton rather than Hogget. This was also hung for the longest – up to 3 weeks in temperature and humidity controlled conditions. Had we been able to taste the saltmarsh lamb, this would have represented the other extreme as at only 6 month this would still be called lamb rather than hogget and was hung for just 4 days. The rest were 12/13 months old and hung for 10-12 days.
Tasting terms for Hogget
Before tasting we were given a helpful prompt in the form of a list of words that are sometimes used to describe the flavour and texture of hogget, although we were encouraged to add any other words we feet appropriate. The suggestions were:
Aromatic Terms - herbs, sorrel, rocket, green salad, sweet, honey, cider cask, fragrant, root crop, beer, tannin, sweet hay, grassy, buttery, grainy, artichokes, parsnips, rosemary, creamy.
Terms related to hanging time – Gamey, salty, fishy, smoky, rich, fresh, light colours, dark colours, sweet, earthy.
Length of Flavour – Intense, complex, light, fresh, deep-rooted, lingering.
Texture – Succulent, tender, dense, melt in the mouth, butter, marbled.
The texture was the first thing to strike about each variety, although the length of cooking had broken down the fibres and rendered all the fat completely. In the order in which we tasted, my own notes were as follows, but the group summary can be seen on http://www.pastureforlife.org/news/diners-praise-the-different-flavours-of-grass-fed-hogget and a further report of the evening from https://www.indiefarmer.com/2016/06/16/why-the-grass-might-be-greener-for-a-new-breed-of-sheep-farmers/
Cotswold – texture soft and stringy. Flavour intense and buttery. Pleasing amount of flavoursome fat.
Swaledale – leaner and less fibrous than the Cotswold. Sweet, rugged, earthy and intense flavour.
Herdwick – quite pale in colour, flesh marbled with fat, which dominated the eating.
Black Welsh Mountain – Of the four this had the most savoury (umami) flavour, which persisted for longest. It had the least fat and was slightly gamey.
Nearly half the group chose the Cotswold as their favourite, the Swaledale and Black Welsh Mountain tied in second place with the Herdwick trailing in at a definite fourth place. Having tasted both the Cotswold and Herdwick breeds before, I would say that the flavour was more influenced by pasture than the breed. In particular, the Herdwick seemed to be fat because it is a hardy breed living in easier conditions than it is used to. The Cotswold was a pleasant surprise as I have not particularly enjoyed it before.
It is important for every producer to understand the flavour profile of the meat they produce, and how to cook it to it best advantage. As these hoggets were all cooked in exactly the same manner I would be interested to know whether any of them would recommend different methods for the same joint.
If I were I to organise a tasting for the general public I think I would start with wider differences in the meat – a lowland breed that had perhaps been fattened on grain versus one fed entirely on pasture for example, and then an entirely pasture fed hill breed as a comparison to the lowland. I would also like to have all of the meats in front of me at once, and tasted blind. I think it is quite possible that, in comparison, we would have found more words to describe the differences and that we could have made a good stab at matching them to the profiles given by the producers.
However, these thoughts about alternative tastings just confirm what an enjoyable and valuable experience it was and I hope there will be many more!
Here are some of my recipe suggestions for enjoying leftover Hogget.